Fresh air, white noise, reportage illustration

Here's a list of five things that have inspired me, or taught me something new over the past month. Hopefully these little nuggets will inspire you too.

Helen Stephens #walktosee Burnmouth Harbour 2018

Helen Stephens #walktosee Burnmouth Harbour 2018

1. This book: Reportage Illustration. This youtube video: Tim King, who has documented his entire year through reportage illustration.

2. People I like to follow on instagram: Sanae_sugimoto.

3. This month's podcast choice is: Fresh Air, especially the David Sedaris and Stephen King interviews.

4. White noise apps and writing / drawing. I heard Grethen Rubin talking about how White Noise Apps help people sleep in noisy hotels. My ears pricked up... Could I use this app to help me write? I often go and sit in the swimming pool cafe surrounded by the white noise of cafe customers chatting, and the shouts and splashes of the swimming pool. Maybe I can stay at home with the white noise app on my ear phones... I'll give it a try and keep you posted. I found a blog post about this subject here.

5. Community is exciting: I started a hashtag on instagram called #walktosee. It's for drawings of our daily walks. There's a broad mixture of people taking part, from established illustrators to people who have never drawn before, talking about their struggles and moments of inspiration with drawing. Why not join in?

P.S. I will be signing books at the New Wimbledon Theatre for the first show of How to Hide a Lion the stage tour, on Sat 8th Sept, the 4pm showing. Hopefully I'll see you there! It will be touring the UK for the rest of the year. Get your tickets here.


Nuts and Bolts and Plastics in our Oceans.

This is a collection of things that I have read this month, or have found inspiring. A bit newsletter, a bit reading list...


Above are notes for the talk I gave at The Nuts and Bolts Illustration Symposium held at Cambridge Art School over the Summer, I am thinking of making a zine of these tips for my shop. Would that be useful? Let me know here.

1. After our recent visit to Iceland we were disturbed by stories of plastic pollution in our oceans, and how it effects whales. 'A whale washed up in southern Thailand has died after swallowing more than 80 plastic bags.' So when we launch our next whale poster in October, we are excited to announce that 10% of proceeds will go to the WDC.

2. I started a hastag project #walktosee for sketchbook drawings of our daily walks. Join in on instagram and twitter. My #walktosee sketchbookzine is back in stock.

3. This episode of Dear Sugars on Surviving the Critics, 'Lots of great writers have written less than great books.'

4. I read The 100 year life - Living and Working in an Age of Longevity by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott and The Multi Hyphen Method by Emma Gannon. Both books talk about modern careers taking many turns instead of one straight path. 

5. One extra nugget of information I had to share because I can't contain my excitement: My book, 'How to Hide a Lion' was adapted for stage, and tours this summer! See tour dates here.

Art Schools, Antonia White and Whales

This is an interesting discussion between Adam Buxton and Bob Mortimer. At one point they talk about how everyone Bob loves, and enjoys being around, went to art school. He has come to believe that, like a kind of national service, there should be an enforced time in art school. Ha! I love this idea!

Gerry Turley and I met while studying at Glasgow School of Art and feel bereft at the news of a second fire in the Macintosh building. Elaine C. Smith, a local resident and actor spoke brilliantly about the art school and what it means to the people of Glasgow on radio 4's Broadcasting House. (it is about 33 minutes in.)

Baby faced me at Glasgow School of Art 1993

Baby faced me at Glasgow School of Art 1993

I have recently reread the entire works of Antonia White. Her novels are some of my favourites, Frost in May is up there with Jane Eyre for me.


[Antonia White] ' suffered from chronic writer's block she claimed had its roots in her expulsion from a Catholic boarding school. While at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, White had embarked on her first novel: a tale about the lives of several "wicked" people who "indulged in nameless vices" until they finally saw the error of their ways and became devout Catholics.

Unfortunately, the nuns confiscated the book before White got round to the last bit. In the incomplete draft they read, there was no redemption, only strumpets dancing at the Trocadero - and White was made to pack her bags before she had chance to explain. This led to a disastrous coupling: a lifelong compulsion to write, and a crippling phobia of doing so.' Eloise Millar

I read this article by Austin Kleon: The Tools Matter and the Tools Matter where he thinks about how the 'mechanics' of writing the story can break writers block. Lynda Barry decided to write the first draft of her novel Cruddy by hand with Tuscan red watercolour to distract herself from sentence structure.


Wherever we travel we always seek out a local bookshop and buy a pile of books. It's always interesting to see how other countries make books for children. On our recent drawing trip to Iceland we found this beauty. 'Örleifur og Hvalurinn' by Julian Tuwim.


Húsavík Iceland

My partner Gerry Turley is an illustrator too, and one of the great things about our job is that we get to travel and draw together.

A couple of weeks ago we packed our bags, got a babysitter for Peggy dog, and headed to Húsavík in the north of Iceland with a pile of sketchbooks. The plan was to see humpback whales in their natural habitat. You probably know, Gerry makes beautiful screen prints of whales on to vintage sea charts (here), and we have been planning this trip for a long time.

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Helen Stephens (drawn in the drizzly rain) Húsavík

Helen Stephens (drawn in the drizzly rain) Húsavík

Gerry was doubly keen to go because he is also illustrating a picture book about an Arctic tern and a humpback whale for Wren and Rook Books, due to publish 2019.

Gerry Turley Húsavík Drawing humpback whales from the boat

Gerry Turley Húsavík Drawing humpback whales from the boat

We were lucky to see numerous whales, including a mother and her calf and a group of males bubble-net feeding (see what that is here). Truly amazing! We are planning making a joint Sketchbookzine of this trip, we'll keep you posted on that. You can see some of our other sketchbookzines here.

Helen Stephens Húsavík

Helen Stephens Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Húsavík

Gerry Turley Reykjavik

Gerry Turley Reykjavik

Helen Stephens Reykjavik

Helen Stephens Reykjavik

Gerry Turley making his new Humpback Whale screen prints at Edinburgh Print Studio

Gerry Turley making his new Humpback Whale screen prints at Edinburgh Print Studio

Gerry's new Humpback Whale screen print is starting to take shape, it will be in our shop very soon. His last edition was featured in The Guardian and sold out immediately, so if you would like one you can join the whale newsletter below for a heads up.

This is one of Gerry's previous spermwhale screen prints. The next edition will be a humpback whale.

This is one of Gerry's previous spermwhale screen prints. The next edition will be a humpback whale.

Working with the door closed and allowing yourself time

I have just been listening to On Writing : A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King.  He talks about the importance of 'Working with the door closed'. Meaning that, until your story is down on paper, from begining to end, don't show it to another living soul. Make it, then show it later. I am guilty of getting over excited and showing my ideas before they are ready, then being knocked way off course by other people's opinions.

A page from my Walk to See Sketchbookzine

A page from my Walk to See Sketchbookzine

Allowing yourself time... For the last few years I have worked with a timetable pinned above my desk that shows all of the projects I have lined up, sometimes going three years in to the future. For a few years I liked this situation, it made me feel secure. But graudually I started to feel scared of that looming timetable. I had no time to play or create for the sake of it. So I asked one of my publishers if I could pay back my advance (and they very kindly said yes), I turned down a two book deal in favour of a one book deal, and said no all other offers that came along for a while. I can't tell you how good it felt, it was such a relief. And now new book ideas are springing up everywhere.

There is a good article on the pros and cons of deadlines here.

Here is a link to something I have been enjoying whilst working recently. Chris Watson's album Weather Report. I find it hard to listen to music while I work, but his recordings of nature take me into another world, which is exactly what I need whilst I write. Let me know what you listen to, I am always on the search for inspiring listening.

The Importance of the first draft and my top five podcasts

I am currently illustrating a huge book of Fairy Tales, nine stories in total. It's almost as much work as illustrating nine individual picture books. It is something I have always wanted to do, and therefore I have to fight a pressure for this to be perfect. As soon as I feel pressure to do an extra specially good job, I freeze up and the work suffers. So I am being practical and just getting on with it. JUST GETTING ON is half the battle. Nine Fairy Tales is a huge mountain to climb, but I have to start somewhere and KEEP GOING.



Slowly, slowly they are taking shape... I make my way through step by step and even if I am not happy with bits and pieces I keep going. Once I have the first set of roughs done, I have something to work with, I can fine tune things and work out how to fix the problem pages later. It has made me remember again, that starting is the most important part. Especially true if you are writing or illustrating your first book. You have no idea where it is going, or if it will be good, or if anyone will read it. But get that first draft on paper, then you have something to work with.

Whilst I illustrate I often listen to podcasts on my earphones. I thought you might like to know my current faves:

1. The Adam Buxton podcast, especially this episode where Louis Theroux sings 'Yes Sir I Can Boogie'.
2. Your Dreams My Nightmares 'Internet Famous'. It is long and could do with some editing, but I enjoyed the part about Instagram and how copying is viewed amongst illustrators these days.
3. I went through a huge This American Life phase, and overdid it I think. But if you haven't been there yet I thoroughly recommend it. One of my favourites is this one about car salesmen, called Cars, probably because my dad was a cars salesman when I was a child.
4. Elizabeth Gilbert Magic Lessons
5. Death in Ice Valley

So many more I could tell you about, I will get to those soon. Let me know if you have any favourites I should listen to.

Picturehooks Mentoring

@KirstiBeautyman and I have been on an adventure together. I mentor, she mentee for the Picturehooks Mentoring Programme. Last night at the private view, we were delighted to find out she was chosen as Picturehooks Illustrator 2017! We each wrote a little about the process:

During our first meeting Kirsti showed me some beautiful, magical ideas she had for picture books, one stood out as having lots of potential: ‘Penny and the Mist Monsters’. She already had a title, and an almost fully formed story. Kirsti said she had never drawn children before, so that was the main focus of our work together. She struggled to show her rough drawings at first, but I think we conquered that without any serious long term scarring! I love how Kirsti has retained the mysterious, magical, strange qualities of her work, whilst finding her picture book voice.
— Helen
Penny and the Mist Monsters Kirsti Beautyman

Penny and the Mist Monsters
Kirsti Beautyman

Working with Helen over this past year has been an invaluable experience. The guidance she has given me throughout the mentoring scheme has been eye opening as she has guided me and helped me to adapt my illustrations to visually fit the market of children’s books. During this journey I have grown and gained confidence, but also I feel very lucky to have gained a supportive and inspiring friend.
— Kirsti

Isn't Kirsti's work beautiful? The exhibition opened yesterday and she has already been approached by a number of agents and publishers. The Bookseller, which is the magazine read by all the publishing types, bookshops, authors and illustrators (basically the best place to be featured as a new illustrator), wrote a piece about Kirsti. If you are recent graduate, wanting to illustrate picturebooks, the Picturehooks Programme is open to you. If you are in Edinburgh, go and see the exhibition:  So much new talent, and not-so-new talent (me, Patrick Benson, Ross Collins, Steven Antony and Debi Gliory).


How to Hide a Lion Helen Stephens

How to Hide a Lion
Helen Stephens

Yearly Doorstep Picture

It's just over 7 years since we left London, our home for 17 years, and moved up to the windy Northumberland coast. In the first few days here Gerry (my partner and fellow illustrator) took a photo of me and Pie on the doorstep. We did the same a couple of years later, and made plans to do it every year after that. Sometimes life got busy and we forgot...

but we remembered this year!

I love looking at these pictures, seeing the change in us as the years have gone by. Pie has grown from a brave, funny, adventure loving toddler who once dressed up as a knight in shining armour (naked bum peeking out under the breastplate which was on her back) and told us she was a 'shite in armour', into a confident, inquisitive 'big-girl' (as she calls herself) full of beans and cheekiness. She has just moved school and told us she likes it because the canteen is like the cafe in Ikea (I think she means you get a tray!)


And for Gerry and I, moving here has influenced our work in all sorts of ways. For me the silvery sea mists inspired me to write How to Hide a Lion (I'll tell you all about that in another blog post), and for Gerry the local wildlife, particularly a beached whale we drew at Beadnell Bay a few years ago have inspired his series of whale prints. You can see Gerry's whale prints and signed copies of How to Hide a Lion, and lots of other exciting goodies in our shop here.